Sarah Gilbert is a freelance financial writer; she keeps chickens; and she’s a beginning urban farmer. She lives with her three small boys and husband in Portland, Oregon, and keeps her own blog, Cafe Mama.

About sprouting

Granola be gone

July 11, 2008

When someone wrote on an email listserv that Sally Fallon, the evangelistic cookbook author of Nourishing Traditions, had strongly recommended a ban on all cold cereal (including granola), I bought the book largely to find out what, exactly, Fallon had been thinking.

Granola — made in my own oven with Northwest-grown organic oats, local hazelnuts and walnuts, and Portland wildflower honey — is one of my little victories. I’d convinced Truman, my stubborn three-year-old, to eat this for breakfast, and I was far too proud of this accomplishment to dismiss it on the word of some wildly opinionated author.

But before I could get to the granola in Fallon’s book, I had to slog through a bunch of chemistry. I read about omega-3s and omega-6s and how we need a nearly equal balance of them. I read about dairy and the variety of amazing bacteria found in fermented foods and the miracle of whey. I read about how wonderful animal fats are for a person. I read about sugar, refined carbohydrates, fruit juice, and alcoholics. (I showed this part to my husband; his kin are substance-dependent down to every last leaf on the family tree, and I see now why he craves orange juice and soft white bread.)

Sprouts, doing their thing.

The bit about healing an alcoholic through nourishing food was a revelation for me, and turned my skeptic brain off for a bit. Soon I was deep into Sally Fallon’s world. She talks a good deal about whole grains, and I know a lot of this already. Refined grains are stripped of all the nutritious parts, making them empty and lawless calories that rob our bodies of vitamins and minerals. Sending wheat berries through industrial steel grinders pulverizes them, subtly altering their chemical makeup so they’re not just nutritionally void but potentially dangerous — proteins altered to the point of toxicity. Whole-wheat flour that’s been ground by stone wheels is crushed less disastrously, and is better for you.

But, says Fallon, those whole grains — whether crushed gently by stone, cracked, rolled, or left in berry form — are still a little hard for our bodies to use properly. Apparently grains contain a substance called phytic acid which combines with lots of important minerals (iron, calcium, zinc) in our intestines, preventing us from absorbing the minerals. In order to make them “nutritionally available,” we must first either ferment or sprout the grains.

“Traditional societies usually soak or ferment their grains before eating them,” Fallon writes, “processes that neutralize phytates and enzyme inhibitors and, in effect, predigest grains so that all their nutrients are more available. Sprouting, overnight soaking, and old-fashioned sour leavening [think sourdough] can accomplish this important predigestion process in our own kitchens.”

This process, she writes, could alleviate the effects of grain allergies and could work in similar ways for legumes by breaking down complex sugars. Sprouting supercharges the predigestion process, increasing the enzyme activity as much as six times.

Fermenting sounds a little frightening, but it’s really not that big a deal. Generally, you leave a grain in some sort of milky liquid overnight. Whole-wheat flour is soaked in buttermilk, yogurt, or raw milk (usually in a 1:1 ratio); whole berries, rolled oats, and beans are soaked in warm water spiked with a tablespoon or so of whey or buttermilk.

The process for sprouted grains is similar to salad sprouts: you soak the seeds in water overnight, cover with mesh of some sort (I use a recycled glass jar and cheesecloth, but you can buy special mesh-topped sprout containers), and then rinse and drain every several hours until a little sproutlet pokes out. For most grains and nuts, you’re only hoping for a sprout of about 1/4 inch.

After reading dozens of recipes, I head to People's Co-op and survey the vast bulk-grains section. I want local-as-possible grains, and there are a lot of options. I pick farro (also known as emmer wheat or emmer berries, an ancient Roman grain), quinoa, garbanzo beans, and rye berries. I realize as I’m writing the PLU numbers on the paper bags that the farro is shockingly expensive — nearly $11 for about two pounds. Erp. I’d better really enjoy this farro.

And I do. I sprout the farro in a big jar on my counter, and in less than two days the little white bits shoot out. Then it’s into the oven, set on “warm,” for drying (a step necessary for grinding it into sprouted flour, but not for other purposes — I’m going whole hog, er, berry, though who knows if I’ll suddenly come into possession of a good stone-wheeled grinder?). I cook it like rice — boiling water, a little salt and butter, until tender-chewy.

I mix it in with my chili; I toss it cold with romaine, broccoli, feta cheese, olive oil, and vinegar; I eat it as a side dish to grilled meat; I try it for breakfast with raw cream, maple syrup, cherries, and hazelnuts. It is delicious, and I do not feel like a hippie. I even serve it to my husband, and he likes it, too.

And oh — about the granola. Fallon says the dry heat used to cook it makes it “impossible to digest,” though she doesn’t inveigh against it as much as she does against extruded cereals and oat-ee-ohs. (She orders her readers, in fact, to remove all cold cereals from their pantries immediately.) I’m not giving it up. But I will acknowledge that I’ve noticed a significant difference in my, um, digestive-y side effects. Granola is making a transition to a topping for yogurt, oatmeal, berry crisps, and the occasional answer to a little boy jumping up and down asking for seeea-we-ull! seeea-we-ull!

There are 5 comments on this item
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1. by James Berry on Jul 11, 2008 at 3:26 PM PDT

Sarah: Wow! Chemistry! And enzyme inhibitors! Not to mention phytates!

I can’t wait to try sprouting some farro. I’m so into more whole grains, and still salivating after the red-quinoi salad with ponzu that we had the other night.

2. by Fasenfest on Jul 11, 2008 at 3:43 PM PDT

Hey Mama,

When everyone gave up butter a few year’s back, I held on. When everyone shunned marbled steaks and fatty stewing meat, I stayed a disciple. Remember egg-yolk phobia and three-white omelets? NEVER. I kept mopping up that sunny-side yolk with bread and a side of bacon if you please. When everyone went crazy for soy based everything I stayed clear of that grocery aisle (tofu now and then but that was it). Vegan baked goods? NOT. I’m not sure why other then my body simply did not crave the alternative that was being offered and I didn’t force it. Today I’m sorta hoping they’ll find out that aerobic exercise is bad for you so I can feel I proud of following my intuition on that too but I sorta doubt it. Well, at least my knees are in good shape.

My point is, follow you gut. It’s pretty reliable and food does have a history of being taken to faddist levels. Still, you know I feel you. And Nourishing Traditions is like a bible to some folks. I have heard amazing stories of health renewed. And I do ferment with whey. But while somedays I feel like fermented cabbage or yogurt or german fermented grain bread with a side of pickled herring (and I do eat that), other times (and it can be weeks) I’ll not crave anything like that. I’m just wondering if that is because our body does need that much help digesting and assimilating as the book lets on. I mean, our digestive systems are pretty functional machines on the whole.

I definitely get that too much sugar and refined flour aren’t going to get you to nutritional heaven but, oh my, it can make some pretty good stuff. And when well-made cupcakes with really goooood buttercream is on the to-eat list for the day, no amount of yogurt or sprouted grain will stop me.

So love your granola if it still calls you. But I’m with you, it does seem to pack a digestive punch.

3. by Ashley on Jul 11, 2008 at 10:45 PM PDT

This was a very interesting read. Ironic that I read this today after I just finished making a truck load of homemade granola. Gulp.

4. by Thomas on Jul 12, 2008 at 8:20 PM PDT

Why not make granola from sprouted grain? You can make malt by sprouting and then drying most grains, seems like oats should be malt-able. Malting (or sprouting) turns the grain starches into sugars. It makes for yummy beers (and milkshakes), I’ll bet you’d get a killer granola.

Would soaking granola or other whole-grain cereals overnight in milk, as with müsli, overcome Fallon’s concerns as to digestability?

Great essay, I really enjoyed it and the thinking it provokes. Perhaps it is time for me to find Fallon’s book and read it, too.

5. by Chris on Jul 26, 2008 at 9:50 PM PDT

Hey, Sarah. I appreciate many of Fallon’s points and how she contradicts so much conventionally accepted wisdom about nutrition, but her emphasis on the dangers of phytic acid seem a bit overblown to me. From what I’ve read, the chelating effects of phytic acid shouldn’t cause deficiencies in someone eating an otherwise healthy diet (see On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee). This would not be the standard American diet, of course. Phytic acid is in the bran, so one way to avoid it is to use refined flours! Also, her claims that people have traditionally soaked flour is questionable (see

I agree with Harriet (big surprise...I find myself nodding a lot when she has something to say) on the seemingly faddish nature of NT. Fallon doth protest too much, methinks. While she has a lot to offer, I find her polemics a bit much and whenever someone tells me there’s one right way, I inevitably begin to question what I’m being told.

Also, I haven’t wanted to try one of her recipes more than once! I could have spit nails after wasting my weekly bread-making session on her yeasted buttermilk bread (I even made buttermilk specifically for the recipe). I’ve made a lot of breads that didn’t rise or were otherwise “failures,” but never one that no one in my family would eat. I’ve had this experience repeatedly with NT recipes.

Anyway...soak and sprout away, if you like the end results, but like all of us, Fallon’s fallible and if you’re liking your granola, don’t give it up over phytic acid fear.

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